Still, the idea that shopping was encroaching on family fellowship rubs many people the wrong way. After Target announced it would open at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving, employees launched an online petition urging the retailer to stay closed.
At about 8:30 p.m., protesters briefly gathered at a Wal-Mart to register their disapproval of the retailer’s labor practices. The protesters planned to visit two other Maryland Wal-Mart stores before midnight.
Inside, the atmosphere was much different. Instead of standing in one long line outside, shoppers lined up at various locations throughout the store. Large balloons were hung from the top of shelving indicating the discount item available: “iPad line starts here.”
Customers in the longest lines sought ways to stay comfortable. One woman in line for the Xbox co-opted a pink beanbag chair from the home furnishings section so she could have a seat. Another customer waiting for an iPad had set up a folding chair.
Throughout the store, customers grasped empty carts and idly tapped on smartphones as they held their position in line.
The earlier hours are helpful for moms such as Liz Mackay, who said she regularly shops for Black Friday deals to get “an early jump on being Santa Claus” for her two sons.
She left her children at home with her husband after Thanksgiving dinner this year. The Wal-Mart line for the Nintendo Wii was just her first stop. Toys R Us would be next. The earlier start time meant she should be home by dawn, when her family wakes up.
The intrusion into Thanksgiving may have reached its limit, some analysts say.
“Evening sales will absolutely continue — customers love it — but I think the sanctity of the day will continue to be protected,” said Kit Yarrow, head of the psychology department at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. “I really don’t think we’ll see stores opening much earlier than this.”
And the strategy might not be enough to secure the holiday sales boost that retailers are hoping for. The sales that stores racked up on Thanksgiving might eat into purchases that typically take place on Black Friday and the rest of the weekend.
Still, for retailers facing a tough holiday shopping season, it might be better to secure sales early rather than risk losing them to a competitor.
But this year’s big discounts left some shoppers disenchanted. Felicia Hammond, 51, arrived at the Best Buy in Elkridge at 10:30 p.m. Wednesday anticipating that the line would wrap around the corner, as it did last year.
Instead, she said, the crowds were much thinner this time around. She could have slept at home in bed and still managed to grab a spot in line Thursday afternoon that would have guaranteed her one of the limited number of products on sale.
An unemployed single mother, Hammond said the steep discounts allow her to buy big-ticket electronics that might otherwise be beyond her budget. “Needless to say, my family is not happy that I am missing being with them another year,” said Hammond, bundled up in a white winter coat and matching hat.
But it’s not over. About 81.5 million shoppers were expected to hold out for traditional Black Friday shopping, twice as many as were expected for Thanksgiving Day shopping, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.
And some — such as Dawn Rivers, who arrived at the Fairfax Kmart on Thursday morning at 6:15 to buy, as she said, “whatever’s on sale”— were planning a shopping marathon that spanned both days.
Rivers, who lives in Vienna, said she planned to go to Wal-Mart, Macy’s and Bed, Bath & Beyond on Friday.
“Maybe I’ll go tonight, too,” she said. “It depends on how Thanksgiving goes.”
Tim Craig and Sarah Halzack contribued to this report.